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HARRISBURG — The new session of the Pennsylvania Senate got off to a chaotic start Tuesday, with Republicans refusing to seat a Democratic senator whose election victory has been certified by state officials.
Amid high emotions and partisan fingerpointing, Republicans also took the rare step of removing the Democratic lieutenant governor, John Fetterman, from presiding over the session. They apparently did so because they did not believe Fetterman was following the rules and recognizing their legislative motions.
Democrats, in turn, responded by refusing to back Sen. Jake Corman (R., Centre) from assuming the chamber’s top leadership position — an unusual maneuver on what is most often a largely ceremonial and bipartisan vote.
The bitterness and rancor on display was a departure from the normally staid and sedate workings of the chamber. And it potentially sets the stage for a tumultuous two-year session, which will include debate over key legislative priorities such as redistricting.
“With this reckless, out-of-control, cowboy-like behavior, with this Trumpian behavior that we saw today from Republicans … this does not bode well. It does not bode well for the people of Pennsylvania,” said Sen. Vince Hughes of Philadelphia, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Appropriations Committee.
For now, at least, Democratic state Sen. Jim Brewster, of Allegheny County, will not be allowed to take the oath of office, as Republicans believe litigation over the outcome in his race must first play out in federal court. GOP leaders have said the state constitution gives senators the authority to refuse to seat a member if they believe the person does not meet the qualifications to hold office.
Brewster narrowly won reelection over Republican challenger Nicole Ziccarelli, who is asking a federal judge to throw out the election results. At the center of that legal dispute is several hundred mail ballots that lacked a handwritten date on an outer envelope, as required by state law. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court allowed those ballots to be counted, which gave Brewster the edge in the race.
Lt. Gov. John Fetterman (center) confers with Senate Secretary Megan Martin (right), as Sen. Jake Corman (front, center), takes over the session to conduct a vote to remove Fetterman from residing over the session in Harrisburg on Tuesday, Jan. 5, 2021. Bobby Maggio, Fetterman’s chief of staff, stands to the left.
Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa (D., Allegheny), along with Sen. Anthony Williams (D., Philadelphia), delivered stinging rebukes to Republican colleagues for refusing to acknowledge Brewster’s win. Costa has said he believes the maneuver was out of “the Trump playbook” of nakedly partisan maneuvers and refusing to accept valid election outcomes.
Costa also had tough words for Corman as he urged his colleagues to vote against the senator.
“The president pro tempore is to be a leader for the entire body — not of one party,” Costa said. “Nowhere in the constitution does it say that the leader should be beholden to the partisan whims of his own party.”
The state’s top Democrat, Gov. Tom Wolf, called the Senate’s refusal to seat Brewster, whose reelection was certified by the state, “simply unethical and undemocratic.”
“Republicans in Pennsylvania and nationally have spread disinformation and used it to subvert the Democratic process,” the governor said in a statement.
For his part, Corman appeared unruffled. Addressing the chamber, he called his new role “the honor of a lifetime,” and said he would work as a leader not just of Republicans — as he did in his previous role as the GOP’s majority leader — but the entire Senate.
He also pledged transparency and good-government reforms.
“We are here today and every day to serve the public,” Corman said. “And I’ve always been a big believer that things that unite us are far stronger than things that divide us.”
As the session opened Tuesday, Democrats attempted several legislative actions to force the GOP to swear in Brewster. But as the minutes ticked by, tempers flared and several senators began to shout across the aisle as the two sides locked horns and Fetterman presided.
Within an hour, Republicans had voted to remove Fetterman from his spot at the rostrum at the front of the chamber after he failed to recognize a GOP motion to prevent Brewster from being seated.
For several chaotic minutes, there appeared to be two people presiding over parallel sessions, as Fetterman refused to leave the chamber.
In an interview Tuesday afternoon, Fetterman said he was disappointed that what should have been a day of pictures and smiles as senators were sworn into office devolved into bitterness.
But, he said, he had a conversation with Corman before the session in which he was unequivocal about his belief that the chamber should seat Brewster, just as every other senator whose election had been certified.
“He has the identical credentials that everyone else who was sworn in had today,” Fetterman said, adding that what unfolded on the Senate floor “subverted the democratic will of voters.”
The fracas overshadowed a moment of history in the chamber, with Republican Sen. Kim Ward of Westmoreland County becoming the first female majority leader.
Meanwhile, across a hallway in the Capitol, the mood was much calmer in the House of Representatives. There, members elected Rep. Bryan Cutler (R., Lancaster) as speaker.
“I hope that as we begin this new legislative term that you will always remember that the most important people here in this commonwealth are not the ones that occupy the seats in this beautiful chamber. And to be clear, they’re not in the Senate either,” Cutler said. “It’s all of our citizens back home. Let us never forget that in a Republican form of government, the sovereign is always the citizens of the commonwealth.”